5. How To Marry a Millionaire (Jean Negulesco, 1953)
In 1953 the only thing bigger than a movie with Marilyn Monroe could be a movie with Marilyn Monroe and two other bombshells to boot. How To Marry a Millionaire was that movie as it starred Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable as three gold digging models trying to make their way in New York city. And to contain so much beauty, How To Marry a Millionaire was also the first ever film to be shot in Cinemascope widescreen.
The film is a silly physical comedy in which the three leads play models who, despite not having much money, decide to rent a penthouse in Manhattan to attract wealthy suitors. Whilst the plan in itself is solid and all three women get the opportunity to catch themselves a wealthy husband, they of course all learn that their true loves turns out to be the (seemingly) not so wealthy guys who they also meet in the process.
How To Marry a Millionaire turned out to be another of 20th Century Fox’s greatest hits that year. Feminists need not apply for this one unless you can take the whole thing with a grain of salt, which shouldn’t be too hard considering the movie is just extremely light fluff from another era. All three actresses play to their strengths and director Negulesco makes great use of Technicolor and Cinemascope here. Stunning colors, great locations, sets and costumes, all contribute to a very lush affair here. Also of note is that this was the first color widescreen movie to ever be broadcast on television when NBC aired it in 1961.
4. The Misfits (John Huston, 1961)
The Misfits is a remarkable film for various reasons. First of all it was directed by one of Hollywood’s legendary old school directors, John Huston. It was also the last film for two of Hollywood’s legendary stars, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, as well as one of the last films for third one, Montgomery Clift, all of whom gave outstanding performances. On top of that it’s also the only original screenplay ever written by Arthur Miller whose marriage to Monroe was breaking down during the shooting of the film. The result is a uniquely dark drama about a divorced woman spending time in the Nevada desert with some cowboys, the disappearance of the old west and mortality itself.
The film revolves around Gay Langland (Clark Gable), an aging cowboy and his friends Guido (Eli Wallach) and Perce (Montgomery Clift), a rodeo rider. They meet young ex-stripper and recently divorced Roslyn Taber (Marilyn Monroe), who has come to the country to forget about her woes, and her friend Isabelle (Thelma Ritter) who is accompanying her. They invite the women over to Gay’s house, which is only half finished as construction halted after his wife died during childbirth. Soon after, Roslyn moves in with Gay but both Guido and Perce also have eyes for Roslyn and matters complicate even further when Roslyn finds out that the three men are planning to sell some mustangs only to be processed into dog food.
For such a high profile film with so much star power, The Misfits, with its bleak and depressing subject matter, did not do well at the box-office at the time of release even though Huston was nominated for an Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures by the Director’s Guild of America.
Nowadays however, it’s considered a classic and might in fact be the most serious acting role Monroe ever took on, playing a real-life vulnerable and damaged woman, which was a far cry from the roles which brought her fame, although it still echoed her “dumb blonde” persona, sex bomb status and even real-life personal issues at the time. But even though it’s one of her best films and probably her best acting performance in any of her movies, the top three of this list is reserved for films which are more typical fare for the fifties sex symbol.
3. Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955)
The movie that gave us the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grating and getting her white dress blown up as a train passes underneath, The Seven Year Itch was Monroe’s first collaboration with master director Billy Wilder and further proof that she certainly had some seriously underrated comedic skills.
Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) has stayed behind in Manhattan as his wife and son have taken off for the holidays. Richard is having a mid-life crisis and fantasises about the women he will never get to date since he’s a married man. But when he gets back home after having packed his wife and son off for their summering in Maine, he runs into his new neighbour, a stunning young actress and formal model, who turns his world upside down.
He invites her to dinner with the intention to have a liaison with the young lady but as he’s basically a good guy with a conscience and she’s extremely naïve, nothing happens between the two. Nonetheless Richard starts worrying like crazy that his lustful thoughts will be obvious to everybody around him and that he will have to pay dearly for simply having thought them, even though he remained faithful.
A great parody of conventional Hollywood romances and pitch perfect casting of Monroe as the naïve and stunning girl next door, The Seven Year Itch is a classic comedy and one of Monroe’s most iconic roles. Even though censorship did not permit adultery on screen (in the original play the movie is based on the husband and girl did end up having an actual affair), Wilder managed to instill the film with enough of a cheeky tone and sexual innuendo to make it daring enough for the times. But Monroe and Wilder still had their best collaboration ahead of them as they would join forces again four years later with a movie that would truly become a comedy classic.
2. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953)
The third classic Monroe film released in 1953 was her second collaboration with director Howard Hawks, which saw the new sex symbol share the screen with another of Hollywood’s greatest bombshells, Jane Russell, who still received top-billing over Monroe at the time. Based on the 1925 novel by Anita Loos called Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Intimate Diary of a Professional Lady, which was first adapted to the screen in 1928 and later turned into a stage musical in 1949, this film adaptation is based on the latter and retains many of its musical numbers.
Miss Lorelei Lee (Monroe) is a gold digging showgirl who sets off to Paris to marry millionaire Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), accompanied by her best friend Dorothy (Russell), who loves good looking fit guys more than wealthy ones. As they make the trip across the Atlantic they are spied upon by private detective Malone (Elliot Reid), who has been hired by Esmond’s father to make sure that Lorelei isn’t the type of girl that will be bad for his son and is simply marrying him for his money. Malone and Dorothy end up falling in love but the fact that he has been hired to prevent her best friend’s marriage doesn’t do wonders for their relationship, nor does Lorelei’s flirtatious behaviour towards a wealthy married diamond mine owner onboard the ship. Will both ladies find true love and does it have a price tag attached?
Retaining many of the musical numbers from the stage show and adding some written especially for the film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes might be the first movie where Monroe truly proved she could charm her audience to bits in a leading part (as she had played a conniving femme fatale in Niagara), even whilst playing a gold digger. The film was a financial as well as critical success and remains one of Monroe’s most beloved films. This movie also features the famous iconic Monroe performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”, which inspired Madonna’s video for Material Girl more than thirty years later and has been copied and/or imitated by various artists many times over the years.
1. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
The second collaboration between Monroe and Wilder, Some Like It Hot can truly be considered as one of the greatest timeless comedies. Monroe is once again perfectly cast as the sexy blonde ditz but is also allowed to put in a great performance and show off her comedic chops. The film also contains another iconic Monroe scene as she performs the song “I Wanna Be Loved By You”. Whilst not as famous as the skirt blowing scene from Seven Year Itch or the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s best Friend” routine from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, this rendition of the song still ranks amongst her most incredible moments on the silver screen as it has a certain almost ethereal quality to it.
The story deals with Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), two musicians who witness the Saint Valentine’s Massacre in gangster-ruled 1920’s Chicago and end up disguising themselves as women in order to escape being taking out by the mob, which doesn’t like the thought of witnesses to their crimes hanging around. Taking on the personas of Josephine and Daphne, they join Sweet Sue’s all-girl orchestra and head off to Florida to do a gig with their new band there.
En route, they meet the orchestra’s lead singer and ukulele player Sugar Kane (Monroe) and both fall for her head over heels but are unable to really do anything about it due to their female disguises. And if that situation doesn’t complicate matters enough, double disguises to win Sugar’s heart, an aging millionaire pursuing Daphne and the mob showing up at their hotel in Miami certainly do.
Some Like It Hot is as funny today as when it was first released in 1959 and one might in fact argue that the timelessness of the film only has made it better over the years. Both Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are in fine form here, whilst Monroe completely holds her own and is as sexy as ever, even though real-life personal problems were starting to take a toll on her and made her notoriously difficult to work with around this time, often arriving late on set and feeling very insecure about her own performances.
None of this shows on screen though and Monroe is a wonder to look at whilst the movie itself remains amongst most beloved comedies of all time. In fact, the American Film Institute labelled Some Like It Hot the greatest American Comedy of All Time when it revealed its list on June 13th 2000. Nobody might be perfect but Some Like It Hot sure comes close.
Author Bio: Emilio has been a movie buff for as long as he can remember and holds a Masters Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Critical and eclectic in taste, he has been described to “love film but hate all movies”. For daily suggestions on what to watch, check out his Just Good Movies Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/goodmoviesuggestions.